Most of us grew up in a time when anecdotal evidence was enough to prove a myth right or wrong. We didn’t need quantitative research or double-blind studies to tell us that the word of a trusted friend or family member was indeed true or false.
Nowadays, things are different. We’re a generation of skeptics—yet even so, myths and unfounded rumors abound. Let’s look at some “truths” about screens, monitors, and digital displays and cut through the fiction. How much of it stands up under scrutiny?
1. “Screen Light Reduces Sleep Quality”
Is it bad to look at screens in the dark? In general, artificial light does decrease sleep quality and duration. Plus digital screens definitely produce artificial light. So in a sense, screens do impact sleep.
But using a computer in the dark isn’t the only time we encounter artificial light at night. Many other objects produce such light, too: fluorescent bulbs, street lights, etc. What’s the difference?
Our body’s natural sleep/wake cycle is called our circadian rhythm, and this rhythm is disrupted by bright artificial light—especially light that’s in the blue-to-white part of the spectrum. Warmer tones of light, such as yellow and orange, also have an effect on sleep quality, but not as much as the cooler blues.
Using bright screens in a dark room before bed disrupts your circadian rhythm by tricking your brain into believing it’s daylight. This halts the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy and prepares you for night. That’s why turning your screen’s blue light into orange light can actually help you sleep better at night.
This works both ways. Because of the real effect, people have used artificial blue light to treat certain mood-related ailments like seasonal affective disorder.
2. “Screen Usage Causes Cancer”
This is a perfect example where causation does not equal correlation. In recent years, several empirical studies have used flawed methodologies and outright bad science in attempts to prove a link between screen usage and life-threatening diseases like cancer.
To be clear, these studies did find a correlation between people who spent more time in front of a screen and greater instances of cancer, but these studies also ignored additional factors.
For example, we’re now living in a period where cancer affects more people than at any point in history. At the same time, we’re in a period where people are using screens more than ever. However…
- We’re also living longer. The longer you live, the more likely you are to develop cancer.
- We’re more sedentary than ever. We no longer have to hunt or gather food; many of us don’t even make trips to work and back anymore.
- We’re eating more processed food in order to get quick meals in between work or what little recreational time we have.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways we can explain increased cancer instances that don’t involve computer screens. We can’t, however, conclusively prove that screens cause an increased number of cancer diagnoses. No study has done this yet.
3. “Screens Cause Diabetes & Depression”
Much like in the example above, this is yet another attempt to find a singular cause for problems brought on by sweeping lifestyle changes that happened over several decades.
People who spend a significant amount of time in front of the computer do indeed have greater instances of ailments like obesity, diabetes, and depression. However, the screen isn’t the cause. It’s a combination of the above-mentioned changes in lifestyle.
If you sit more, you’re more likely to gain weight. If you gain weight, you’re more likely to have health issues. Heavier people with health issues tend to have more problems with diabetes, depression, and anxiety-type mental conditions.
It’s not rocket science, but there are ways to improve your health even if you’re on the computer for hours every day.
4. “Screens Can Damage Your Vision”
Ophthalmologists agree that too much time staring at a screen isn’t “good” for your eyes, but depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers regarding how much damage it actually causes.
The biggest fear is that heavy screen might lead to macular degeneration, which is one of the leading causes of blindness. But is there any evidence to support this fear?
At this time, there is no compelling evidence that even suggests long-term eye damage is possible from screen usage. However, you should still exercise caution because screens can cause eye strain, which could lead to temporary issues.
Verdict: Mostly fiction.
5. “Sitting Too Close Impairs Vision”
Many think that this myth is simply the proliferation of anecdotal evidence, bad science, and old wives’ tales. But as it turns out, there is the hint of truth somewhere within.
In 1967, GE informed the public that their color televisions were releasing somewhere between 10 and 100,000 times the amount of radiation generally deemed as safe. To combat this, they suggested that television-watchers should move further away from the television to minimize the impact.
But we don’t have this problem anymore.
Sure, staring too near to a screen—whether the screen is a television, monitor, or mobile device—can cause eye strain, headaches, blurry vision, and even nausea, but more often than not these problems are actually related to the angle of your head, shoulders, and neck. The distance to the screen has no impact.
For example, if you watch a toddler as they take in their favorite cartoon on TV, you’ll notice that they tend to sit just a few feet from the TV and stare up at it. This non-ergonomic position affects the eyes more than the actual distance.
Simply put, it doesn’t matter how far you sit from a screen. Rest your eyes when they start to get tired and make sure to always assume proper ergonomics, but otherwise, sit as close or as far as you need in order to be comfortable.
Verdict: Once fact, now fiction.
6. “Darkness Causes Vision Problems”
We’ve all heard that using the computer in a dark room is bad for your eyes—but this claim has absolutely no basis in scientific fact. It started as an old wives’ tale, and that’s where it should rest. Unfortunately, this unfounded myth keeps making the rounds in households and on the internet.
To be fair, viewing a bright screen in a dark room does have an impact on your eyes, but not in a way that directly affects your vision. Rather, the combination of bright-screen-dark-room causes you to blink less, and that causes your eyes to dry out. Dryness leads to irritation and aches, but your vision itself suffers no long-term effects.
If you’re worried about this, you can always switch to a darker theme.
Do You Look at a Screen in the Dark Before Bed?
Using a phone or computer in the dark may be interfering with your sleep and causing eye strain, but you need not fret about causing long-term damage to your eyes. The lost sleep is more of a concern. Similarly, it doesn’t matter all that much how close you are to the screen. But how is your posture, and have you stopped blinking?
Your eyes are fine, but if you’re staring at a screen long enough to be concerned, you’ve probably been sitting for too long and could still benefit from stretching your legs.